Lavento Fox has spent a total of 646 days and counting in Lowndes County Adult Detention Center.
The 33-year-old Columbus resident was arrested last week for allegedly robbing and beating a man in south Columbus. It’s his 13th time being locked in the county jail.
Lavento’s brother, Sugi, has been locked up 17 times — though as he’s been arrested on more misdemeanors, he’s only spent 78 days in jail total. Still the Fox brothers illustrate a trend in the criminal justice system of the same people being arrested — and sometimes convicted — multiple times, including for violent crimes like assault and armed robbery. His total bond is set at $680,000.
“I’ve seen people who have been in and out of jail 30 something times,” Chief Deputy Marc Miley, with the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office said.
It’s a costly proposition for taxpayers, as Jail Administrator Rick Jones estimated the per-day price of incarcerating an inmate is about $25. At that rate, just the two Fox brothers have cost Lowndes County citizens $18,100.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Building rap sheets
In February 2016, Lowndes County Circuit Court Judge Jim Kitchens presided over 26 cases and began keeping track of how many priors each defendant had. Only six defendants had no felony priors.
“Those 20 with priors had, between the 20 of them, 37 prior convictions,” Kitchens said. “And that’s not unusual, necessarily, in a term of court.”
For Lavento Fox, priors include a string of misdemeanors and occasional drug crimes, including a conviction for possession of cocaine in 2002. In 2011, he was acquitted of a robbery, kidnapping and burglary.
“Anybody who went to that trial would say there was really a lack of any evidence to even put him at the scene,” said Fox’s defense attorney, William Starks. “If you can’t even put the guy at the scene — and they had cooperating witnesses, but whoever did the crime was masked, was disguising themselves, was not out in the open and … those witnesses couldn’t fully identify him as the person who did it. … It was very weak evidence.”
Innocent until proven guilty
Evidence is key. In the American court system, everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
“We have a system in place which is geared to protect the innocent person first,” Starks said. “…The safeguards are in place where innocent people get protected. But occasionally guilty people do, as well.”
That sometimes makes it difficult to get a conviction in a case, District Attorney Scott Colom said.
“The quality of the investigation matters so much when trying to convict someone of a violent offense,” he said.
The longer violent cases stay in the court system, the less likely the evidence is to hold up. Colom said he’s seen armed robbery cases dismissed because witnesses couldn’t positively identify the defendant — seven years later.
“At that point, I don’t have the evidence to get a conviction,” he said.
The evidence often relies on witnesses — who may or may not be cooperative.
“The victims have got to be cooperative,” Capt. Brent Swan, head of Criminal Investigation Division with the Columbus Police Department. “Victims have to be willing … to prosecute.”
In one recent case, he said, a victim signed an affidavit against a suspect — and asked to recant the statement a month later.
“That happens all the time,” Swan said.
The victim may care about the suspect and not want them to get in trouble, may have been involved with the suspect in a drug deal or other crime or may just be downright scared of the suspect, Starks said. He once asked a client why he wouldn’t testify against a particular suspect.
“There are some people who are a lot of talk,” Starks said the client told him. “This one’s not.”
In and out of the system
Even getting a conviction is no guarantee that someone may not be charged again. Thanks to a 2015 law state legislators passed meant to cut down on prison costs, suspects convicted in all but the worst felonies may not serve their entire sentence.
“Most violent crimes … you’re going to serve 50 percent now,” Kitchens said. “Aggravated assault, armed robbery, mayhem, drive-by shootings, those kind of things, they’ve made them 50-percent crimes.”
Suspects often get credit for however much time they spent in county jail before their trials, which also cuts down on prison time, he added.
Miley agreed that sentences are not what they once were.
“It’s changed a lot over the last 25 years,” he said. “Used to, you’d see somebody … go to (prison) and they’d learn their lesson because they would do time in (prison). …. Now they go to (prison), they do very little time, they’re right back out and they’re put on probation or they’re put on a work program or something like that.”
But Carrie Jourdan, who was a public defender for 18 years and who still does criminal defense, disagrees.
“Don’t be misled,” she said. “This district is very, very tough on violent crimes.”
Instead, she argues the problem is most repeat offenders are convicted or plead guilty to their first felony when young, often as teenagers. They’re still young when they get out of prison and have more time to commit more crimes, she said — and they don’t see prison as a deterrent.
“I don’t care how hard you make the penalties,” she said. “When a person is drunk and high, they’re not thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to get in a lot of trouble for this.’ … When a person is poor and desperate and they go in to rob a store, they don’t think, ‘This is armed robbery, I could go to prison for the rest of my life.’ They don’t think about that. It is not a deterrent.”
No easy answer
There’s no easy answer to the problem — at least not one everyone agrees on.
Kitchens suggested it’s time legislators take another look at the 2015 law that cuts down on prison sentences.
“They indicated they’d go back and look at things and see if things needed to be fixed,” Kitchens said. “All of us who are in this line of work see some things that we think need to be tweaked. So hopefully they will.”
But Jourdan said flatly that more prison time is not the answer. Her defendants are, by and large, from unstable, single-parent homes and are addicted to drugs — communities and prisons should fix those problems instead of just locking people up, she said. In countries where prisons focus on rehabilitation, prisons are closing, she said.
“They’re getting at the root of the problem,” she said.
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